They know

When it comes to gender, some outlets – especially on the left – just don’t get it. ‘If only they knew what was going on’, so many parents lament. But the truth is very different: more often than not, it’s not a question of ignorance but of fear. In this long read piece, we delve into the culture war ripping newsrooms apart, and what it means for the trans debate.

🕕 A 30 minute read

There are certain types of media outlet that have adopted a hard-line stance in favour, as they would see it, of trans rights. Some are the up-and-coming magazines of the social justice Jacobins; some, the can’t-we-all-just-get-along Centrist Dads; and some are the big beasts of the mainstream left. While each outlet will have its own ethos, each decries any questioning of the new gender orthodoxy as ‘anti-trans’, ‘hateful’, or even ‘dangerous’.

Take, for example, a recent piece in the left-of-centre UK outlet, openDemocracy. It took for granted that breast binding and testicular tucking are ‘common gender-affirming practices’, rather than serious risks to female and male health; that those who shut down the Great Ormond Street Hospital conference were whistle-blowers, despite the Interim Cass Review encouraging the UK Government to address the many problems caused by the current affirmative model; that the many resignations and court cases relating to the UK’s Tavistock Clinic aren’t worth mentioning; and that the science is settled on suicidality among gender dysphoric youth, even though this is probably the most contested area of research. The scare quote was so liberally used that you worry for the apostrophe key.

In openDemocracy’s case, this seems to be nothing more than a glib reading of the situation. Young, passionate activist journalists, without the counsel of more seasoned counterparts, see only a ubiquitous threat of bigotry against minorities, and have decided to fight back. And who can blame them? It’s the job of the young to poke society’s conscience. So, rather than listening to both sides of an argument to arrive at a more rounded view, or – better yet – checking the facts themselves, they outsource their thinking to those who teeter at one edge of the spectrum of opinion.

But this is a tougher argument to make when it comes to the mass-market newspapers of the centre left. These established, prestigious and well-resourced outlets count serious figures among their writers – and among their political connections, too. It’s harder for distressed parents and legitimately furious detransitioners to write these big beasts off as conducting student politics. A case in point: The New York Times.

EXHIBIT A: LIANNA

‘Lianna is Imagining Harry Potter Without Its Creator’, crows a New York Times advert in a Washington metro station. Lianna, who may just be a stock photo, gazes into middle distance, inspired by the thought of a world where women – presumably including herself – can be memory-holed for wrongthink.

A New York Times advert on the Washington Metro | Credit: Twitter

The message of the campaign is simple: on gender, the Times has very little interest in readers who defy the status quo. The orcs can slum it with lesser outlets, thanks very much. And so, a paper which self-lauds for its progressive stance on women’s rights now argues that one of the world’s most commercially successful authors should be dispossessed of her own creations – or at least, that is what the metro-riders of the District of Columbia are encouraged to imagine.

Yet no explanation for Lianna’s daydream is provided; the reader’s knowledge of the context is assumed. Surely anyone of good character would know of J. K. Rowling’s trans gressions, the argument seems to go. In reality, anyone who has read what Rowling actually wrote on the trans issue would be aware that the accusations of hateful rhetoric are absurd. Here’s an excerpt:

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

In fact, J. K. Rowling has incurred the fury of the more militant campaigners against medical transition. She has publicly professed support for trans people such as Buck Angel and Rose of Dawn, and thus ‘betrayed the cause’ of ostracizing trans people, a cause to which she never signed up. Only in the fever dreams of a ‘trans liberationist’ – someone who believes that hormones should be as easily acquired as over-the-counter painkillers – could she be thought a firebrand.

Liberating Harry Potter from the dungeon of his author’s mind is only one of The New York Times’ many absolutist campaigns. In recent months, the paper has rhapsodized about ‘gender-affirming care’, denying the positive role that exploratory therapy can play, and expunging detransitioners in the process; has written off ROGD (rapid onset gender dysphoria) as a scare-quoted ‘syndrome’ dreamt up by (shriek!) conservatives; and has associated qualms about paediatric transition with a moral panic about gay marriage, declining to mention the LGB organisations that have sprung up to counter the phenomenon of transing the gay away. And while dissent is occasionally possible, it is usually brief.

Can we assume, then, that the Times is suffering the same ideological seizure as openDemocracy?

THE DOUBLE-DOWN

The (actually quite non-binary) habit of closing one eye isn’t just confined to The New York Times: The Washington Post, too, leaves a trail of bias in its wake. The Post seems determined to cement the phrase ‘anti-trans legislation’ in the American national psyche, narrowing down the linguistic means of describing these bills to one regurgitated phrase. ‘Anti-trans legislation has never been about protecting children’, one article protests. A month later, ‘The new wave of anti-trans legislation is based on very old arguments and ideas’. And one month after that, ‘False claims of protecting children are fueling anti-trans legislation’.

In reality, legislative bills seeking to restrict medicalisation are almost always informed by parents such as those in Genspect, among other parties. These parents, in a bid to understand their children’s fixation on transition, have often gone out of their way to make contact with trans people who transitioned at an early age; conversely, Genspect is frequently approached by trans people who want to help parents in their quest to reform the law. Sometimes, these exchanges have resulted in lasting friendships. But this is no obstacle for the WaPo, as these trans people can be dubbed ‘anti-trans’ as easily as the legislation can. The narrowing of the linguistic range betrays a more sinister narrowing: that of thought, and of human contact.

The WaPo writers’ practice of doubling-down should, in theory, be costing them readers. But in an era where online media are blooming, legacy media are bearish, and the average citizen is mistrustful of the media in general, there are worse things than repetitive text. In fact, editorial decisions to use normative language may be sensible: they might at least stave off newsroom quarrelling over terminology.

While it is true to say that The Washington Post has occasionally offered a little light pushback, the pushback leaves much to be desired. An article suggesting that too many children are being transitioned may seem to offer hope: yet its clinician-authors have yet to establish a reliable diagnostic model of who will and will not regret transition. It isn’t clear that such a model could be developed; and trans-activist parents will always believe that their kids are the special ‘unicorn children’ who will benefit from medicalisation.

For our part, we firmly oppose the notion that anyone under the age of 25, whose identity is still in formation, should ever medicalise a transgender identity.

So, just like The New York Times, The Washington Post has nailed its colours to the mast. The logical conclusion that many parents will reach is that ‘they just don’t know what’s going on’, as might also be argued of openDemocracy. And in some ways, we can expect ignorance in the current climate. Parents are justifiably fearful that their relationships with their children will suffer – or, with older kids, even end – if their activism is uncovered, and so largely remain anonymous. The plight of these families is unlikely to garner as much media attention as, say, the Lia Thomas controversy. For a start, there are no pictures.

Lia Thomas demonstrating the binary nature of biological sex | Credit: Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

But in many cases, there is simply no evidence that these outlets do not understand what is really going on – and plenty of evidence to the contrary.

THIS MAY SURPRISE YOU, BUT…

In fact, Genspect has established numerous contacts at major left-of-centre outlets, including The New York Times, and engaged in many exchanges. Sometimes, these have been conducted over email, allowing us to share the many peer-reviewed papers that call into question the supposed benefits of the contemporary model of gender medicine. In a few cases, we have spoken at length over the phone, stressing our own experiences – whether as parents of gender-questioning kids, or as people who ourselves suffered from a sense of being strangers in our own sex during adolescence.

In these conversations, our concerns have been not only raised but acknowledged: the rise of internalized misogyny and homophobia; the soaring number of detransitioners; the absence of joined-up healthcare that takes comorbidities into account; the poor quality of the research that justifies medical transition. Sources and resources have been provided, accompanied by educational credentials (where applicable). The journalists in question have engaged in debate, agreeing with some arguments, pushing back on others, as is to be expected in the normal process of civil discourse.

The responses to our arguments often sound reasonable, but are ill-informed. Sometimes, we hit the brick wall of ‘trans is like gay’. Sometimes, the objection is that the science is settled, as proven by organisations like the AAP and the AMA (as though the medical profession has never before made a collective mistake), or that gender identity is innate (ask a detransitioner about this), or that all surgical procedures come with a risk of regret, and the unfortunate consequence of inevitable, but minor, collateral damage (ditto).

But when conversations turn to the complexity and stigma of mental ill health, to the absence of meaningful diagnostic tests, to the inexplicable behaviour of the Endocrine Society compared to its international counterparts, to the real content of so-called anti-trans legislation, or to the shell games clinicians play with risks and benefits, it becomes clear that many people are simply too afraid to find out more. If they were to look more closely, they might well discover information that would horrify them – and some things are easier not to look at.

Unfortunately, these discussions have so far proven to be false dawns. Sooner or later, contacts go dead. Heartfelt personal testimonies and assiduous bullet-pointed lists of well-evidenced counterpoints sit unread in inboxes, and the lines of communication eventually get severed. For those who say ‘they just don’t know’, the unvarnished truth is this:

They know.

They know that many young gender dysphoric people adopt trans identities as a response to homophobic bullying; that the practice of ignoring serious psychiatric conditions, rather than integrating them into a comprehensive treatment plan, is unprecedented in modern healthcare; that the erosion of single-sex spaces and activities has catastrophic consequences for women and girls; that the data are skewed by the same massive corporate interests the left used to rail against. They know about the many organisations that have been formed to push back; about the hyper-sexualised climate to which young people are exposed; about the role that grief and trauma can play; about the elevated rates of autism; about the self-loathing and the depression; about the influence of porn; about the detrans Subreddit; about Keira Bell; about the always-greener grass on the other side of transition.

We know they know all these things, because we’ve told them, repeatedly, and politely, and in terms.

So what is going on?

NAXALT

Here’s a simple explanation: those of us opposed to paediatric transition are far-right bigots. This retort, of course, is designed to be near-impossible to counter. Weakly asserting that ‘some of my best friends are trans’ will get you nowhere – not when a trans person can just as easily be dubbed a transphobe as anyone else.

It is laughable to argue that parents such as those we represent are all ultra-conservative on social issues. For a start, Genspect team members are disproportionately likely to be gay. The parents who support us draw from across the political spectrum, from disillusioned liberals and frustrated centrists to moderates and small-c conservatives and, in particular, the politically homeless. We are non-partisan and international – meaning, if nothing else, that we shouldn’t be immediately drawn into a culture war that is, at its heart, North American. In left/right terms, we exclude the two extremes of far left and far right, who are unwilling to engage in dialogue on this (or any other) matter. Everyone else is welcome, regardless of sex, sexuality, class, race, religion, or lack of religion.

The new political tribes of America | Credit: Unity2020 project / Hidden Tribes

But there is an awkward admission to make here. While it is true that the allegation of transphobia has become something of a Swiss Army knife for some on the left, it is not helpful to deny that militant – and frequently ugly – voices are growing louder. It isn’t just childish to poke fun of kind and well-intentioned people for failing to pass as members of the opposite sex, or to accuse them of having dangerous paraphilias simply for being trans and nothing else. It’s counter-productive. It makes it easier for politically entrenched journalists to write off the many parents who have deep fears that their children are being led down the wrong path. It justifies excluding their stories from the media – and thus keeps these stories from reaching the public.

None of these extreme voices are welcome in Genspect, and they know it. But they do exist, and protestations of NAXALT – ‘not all X are like that’ – will no longer cut it. Those opposing the affirmative model have been too reticent to call out these unhelpful actors, partly because of an understandable reluctance to draw attention to them, and partly because of a horror that it is not just the far-right that is the source of this kind of rhetoric. We should not be downhearted: such actors are few; thankfully, they have no media presence; equally, they have very little reach into the realms of politics. Yet nor can we claim that this isn’t a real problem.

But this, too, is a red herring. In the many conversations we have had with the left-wing press, we have stressed the non-partisan nature of our community, and its ideological diversity. We have taken pains to recognise the worrying growth of aggressive and cruel discourse, and to establish that we sit firmly outside that dynamic; that we work alongside trans people; and that we are frequently criticised by those who believe that we are mealy-mouthed middle-of-the-roaders who will be squashed by oncoming traffic.

We have also pointed out that some Genspect members’ kids will indeed transition once adults, despite the parents’ wishes. Some, as young adults, have even started this process, and their parents have chosen to remain in Genspect, to campaign for other families to receive better healthcare than they received themselves. These parents would hardly wish their own children to be subjected to ridicule. Treating these young people with dignity isn’t just some clever media strategy: it’s a moral necessity for those in our community.

So, to add another item to the list of things they know: they know that we are not the bigots. But for some – particularly in North America – that just doesn’t seem to be enough.

TODDLER KINGS

The truth is that, in many newsrooms, the children have taken control of the adults. Again and again, senior staff from a variety of institutions – and in both senses of the word ‘senior’ – have taken the time to listen to the voices of parents, detransitioners, and transsexuals who are deeply concerned about the current affirmative model. But these journalists are held hostage by young radicals who see any critique of the transgender health industry as heresy.

When a balanced article putting forth both sides of the argument is suggested, mutiny ensues. Frantic emails shoot from phone to phone, claiming – without evidence – that any form of critical discussion will result in a cascade of violence targeting trans people. Trans-identifying staff declare that they will resign, citing an unsafe climate. Anecdotally, we hear that editors have even been threatened with law suits from their own junior staff.

Suzanne Moore’s departure from the Guardian is just one example of this extraordinary climate, in which the heretic jumps before she is pushed – or perhaps burned. Moore has spoken about this episode in some detail. If she is indeed a transphobic bigot, she certainly deserves an Oscar for her performances: what the average member of the public will see is an open-hearted individual merely seeking to discuss the impact of gender identity on different sections of society, and on women in particular. Yet junior staff treated her as though she were single-handedly responsible for every injustice that trans people have ever faced, volleying such unsustainable levels of hostility at her that she ultimately quit – much to the Guardian’s loss.

These toddler kings (for want of a less gendered term) are increasing in number, moving up through the ranks of newsrooms – even those that have a good track record of presenting different arguments on the trans topic. An editor can only hold out for so long. Whether through retirement, attrition or surrender, the older journalists will eventually be replaced by young radicals who believe that their ultimate duty is not to free enquiry but to the defence of a beleaguered minority. While it may not be apparent yet, media outlets across North America are poised to fall to the dogmatic whims of activists, and a balanced think-piece here or there should certainly not be taken as evidence of a turning tide.

When it comes to fair coverage of gender issues, we are living on borrowed time.

MEANWHILE, AN OCEAN AWAY…

For those in the UK, it is easy to imagine that The New York Times and the Washington Post are to American liberals as the Guardian and the Observer are to their British equivalents. (The Observer is the Sunday version of the Guardian, for those who don’t know.) Yet the Observer, at least, seems to be going in a rather different direction.

A recent article not only acknowledged the scandalously poor care afforded to detransitioners, but lambasted the attempts to foreclose discussion of the best way to treat gender dysphoric youth. Its sister paper, the Guardian, has also taken wary steps towards publishing demurring voices – although it should be said that the Guardian has not gone anywhere near as far as the Observer in rowing back from the absolutist position of the gender-affirmative.

In legislative terms, too, the trans-Atlantic gap seems to be widening. The UK Government-commissioned Interim Cass Review, while certainly imperfect, has been widely praised for edging towards a new model – one that normalizes the treatment of gender dysphoria, rather than siloing it away in gender clinics. While it remains to be seen which policies will eventually be adopted, the UK may well be moving in the same direction as Sweden, where a more holistic vision of psychiatric care (among other factors) has resulted in a major drop in the number of adolescents who undergo medical transition.

It’s true to say that European countries feature some of the most centralized health systems in the world: it may not be realistic to expect similar strides to be taken in the Anglosphere’s federalized behemoth, the United States. But, while size may be a factor, the emerging rift is not just a matter of big country versus small country. America now sees the issue of paediatric medicalization through the lens of its wider culture war, creating a winner-takes-all dynamic. While California declares itself ‘a refuge for transgender youth’, Texas seeks to define medicalization of young people as child abuse by definition, even if there is no evidence that parents have been sufficiently informed by healthcare providers to understand the consequences of the decisions they have made about their children’s futures. Opportunities for ideologues to step down from absolutist positions are increasingly rare.

Californians declare their state ‘a refuge for transgender youth’ | Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press

In the culture war framework, ballet-attending vegans are pitted against Bible-thumping yokels, with everyone else consigned to invisibility. In an ever more centrifugal political space, the Team Blue vs. Team Red permabattle makes it hard for politicians, journalists, policy-makers and regular Jo(e)s to hold the centre ground. In America, political homelessness is the new normal.

EVERYONE WHO MATTERS

For those on Team Blue, the imprimaturs of The New York Times and The Washington Post are invaluable. As one Genspect parent who hails from the left of centre puts it, ‘a lot of people just won’t believe it unless they’ve read it in The Washington Post’ – where ‘Washington Post’ might just as well be swapped for ‘New York Times’. The reach of these two organs is considered to be unparalleled, as is the prestige associated with their readers. If we can get The New York Times to print it, the logic goes, everyone will believe it – where everyone is shorthand for everyone who matters. But there are two big problems with this logic.

The first, as covered above, is that many of the movers and shakers on the liberal left know what’s going on. They just can’t say it – or rather, they are not prepared to face the loss of prestige among everyone who matters, and so won’t say it. The division of society into everyone who matters versus the rest of us schmucks has its own political problems – and that’s before you get to the fact that everyone who matters has screwed the pooch, at least where gender is concerned.

The second, and more pressing, problem is this: the facts don’t change according to who says them. Much disdain has been volleyed at those who have chosen to speak out on Fox News, or similar conservative-facing platforms. But half of the United States is conservative, and – troubling as this may be to a few – that half of the United States has as much right as the other half to vote.

More to the point, these appearances educate vast numbers of Americans about the dire consequences of adolescent transition: Americans who might otherwise be in the dark; Americans who might then spread the word among their friends and relatives, of whatever political stripe, raising awareness of the emerging catastrophe the affirmative model has created. Families and friendship groups are not always united by politics. Even in today’s heightened climate, amicable disagreement on political issues still abounds, and reaching out across the aisle is still possible.

With the clock ticking, this is not a point which can be dismissed lightly.

BUT SHE’S A CONSERVATIVE!

With this in mind, it is worth taking a moment to mention one figure in particular: Abigail Shrier. This highly experienced journalist and writer’s appearances on Fox have reached millions of viewers, and not just in the United States. Roughly one in every two emails we receive from frightened parents whose kids have just come out as trans contains some iteration of the phrase ‘and then I read Irreversible Damage’, describing the first moment at which they realised they were not totally alone.

Since the publication of Irreversible Damage, Shrier has been relentlessly and unfairly attacked. Sometimes, these attacks involve critiques of her wider political views: paradoxically enough, these are often divined according to Irreversible Damage itself, placing the cart before the horse. At other times, the criticism of Shrier is purely ad hominem, seeming to emanate from a place of deep and irrational hurt. Sadly, this is probably to be expected, given how all-encompassing trans identities have become to many young people, and the political absolutism which follows suit.

Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreeement | Credit: Paul Graham / Loudacris

In America’s current political climate, anyone with political views has a large fraction of the country disagreeing with them, and that includes Abigail Shrier. But Shrier’s devastating depiction of the realities of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria remains unassailable, making arcane discussions of the boundaries of left and right irrelevant. Facts, after all, are apolitical. As Sheffield University’s Jonathan Foster is reported to have said,

If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out the f***ing window and find out which is true.

Despite persistent attempts by several left-leaning publications to argue to the contrary, there is nothing political about the desire to protect vulnerable adolescents from a lifetime of medication, anorgasmia, infertility, and medical complications. The sorting of media figures by partisan tribe is neither here nor there.

The counter-argument to this is simple: talking to those who do not hail from the left makes us look conservative; and if we look conservative, everyone who matters will dismiss us. But the stark reality is that the everyones who matter are the same everyones who are perpetuating this situation, whether in their ideological commitment to the sanctity of medicalisation, or their inability to confront those who hold such a commitment.

As things stand, then, it is no more realistic to expect those at The New York Times and The Washington Post to resolve this situation than it is to expect the burglar to re-glaze the window he smashed on the way into your bathroom. While we should always remain open to dialogue and the possibility of change, right now these outlets are not so much the answer as the problem.

SO WHAT NEXT?

There is a process of grief which naturally accompanies betrayal – which is precisely the word that many parents with gender-questioning kids would use about the liberal left’s coverage of trans issues. The various Kübler-Ross stages apply: some American Democrats might find themselves stuck in disbelief that those they once held up as luminaries do not seem to see what is happening; others might bargain, believing that one more below-the-line comment might just do the trick. It is painful when your own political tribe abandons you, not least because you find yourself calling into question all the other beliefs which came with the same political bundle.

So far, so bleak. But this article should not be taken as a counsel of despair. In European countries at least, major outlets have been able to pivot on the gender issue. It is probably optimistic to suggest that this is happening at the Guardian, but it has certainly happened at the Observer, and at the Irish Times, where letter-writing campaigns from loyal readers actually proved highly effective. While the below-the-line comments in American publications may not change editorial policy, they at least offer glimmers of hope so far as public opinion is concerned.

And for those who are wondering how – or whether – the ship can be turned around, there are three courses of action that might prove useful.

The first is to support those who have blown the whistle, whether in making documentaries which expose the heady new intransigence of trans activist campaigners; writing books which detail the wider social ramifications of trans ideology; holding the line in an academic world which is more and more hostile to critical thinking; campaigning to uphold the primacy of biological sex over gender identity; or continuing to cover the broader issues afflicting a society that seems ever more polarised.

These individuals have often paid an obscenely high price for their actions, forced to defend themselves from unfounded accusations of bigotry and even from physical threats. Imagining that they could be superseded by fictional, untainted counterparts with somehow unburnished credentials simply isn’t realistic. The loss of liberal prestige often came as a consequence of their work, not as its forerunner. For those on the left, supporting these figures should be seen not a betrayal of liberal values, but an assertion of them.

The second useful course of action is to reject the moral monopoly of the people causing the problem. True, it’s important not to fall into the hands of genuine extremists, whose ranks will only swell as the crisis of inappropriate and irresponsible medicalization worsens. But it cannot be left to one relatively small section of society to determine who is, and is not, beyond the reaches of normal civil discourse. When journalists decry people as ‘reactionary’ or ‘hateful’, it may be wise to consider how well-placed they are to make such judgements, rather than immediately backing away from those on their receiving end.

And finally, the third course of action is to encourage those around you to deduce what it true and what is false not according to tribal allegiances, but by considering the basic facts. In other words: if you want to know if it’s raining, look out the window.

Credit: Twitter

Genspect is an international, non-partisan and unaffiliated alliance of parents and professional groups who are concerned about the poor treatment of gender-questioning kids. If you are in need of help, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at [email protected].

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